Remembering 'Rhinestone Cowboy' Glen Campbell

Aug 9, 2017
Originally published on August 11, 2017 6:56 am

Glen Campbell, the country music legend behind the classics "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston" and "Rhinestone Cowboy," among others, died on Tuesday after a long, public struggle with Alzheimer's Disease. He was 81.

Campbell had his biggest hits in the '60s and '70s, including "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Southern Nights" and "Gentle on My Mind," which was also the theme of his TV show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

Before beginning on his solo career, Campbell played on many Beach Boys records, also touring with the group in 1964. He also played guitar with the legendary group of Los Angeles studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, whom he continued to collaborate even after his solo success. Many of them played on his hit records.

"It was the same guys, and it was so much fun in the studio with them because [it was like], 'Hey, old big shot's back with us, boys,'" he told Fresh Air in 2008.

Though Campbell's life at times seemed charmed, he battled drug and alcohol addiction and, in 2011, revealed his Alzheimer's diagnosis. He continued to tour for another 15 months, before recording his final album Adiós, released this past June.

Read highlights from Campbell's conversation with Fresh Air's Dave Davies in 2008.

On younger listeners getting introduced to Campbell and his music

"A good song is a good song. A lot of people, they listen to a good song but they ain't got a hole in their ear. I don't know where that came from. But the songs that we picked [for Meet Glen Campbell], the country, the rock, the whatever kind of music you say it is, I never really looked at it like that. I looked at it as just being good music. But ... people seem to like they wanted to pinhole things, you know, "This is country and this one is rock and this one is pop." You know, I never looked at music like that. ... I just wanted to do it like what the song called for, and people, they make up their own mind whether it's country, rock, pop or crock."

On his childhood in Arkansas

"As soon as you got old enough to milk the cows, you milked the cows. It was — slop the hogs. We didn't have electricity when I was a kid. We had to watch TV by candlelight. No, that's a silly joke. But I did the chores, and ... we didn't have electricity, and we farmed. Daddy, I remember when he first let me drive the cultivator for him, you know. ... He eased you into the hard work that you had to do later."

On how his solo career began

"Before ... I was in a position where I didn't have to go out and knock on doors. Everybody — and then a lot of people didn't even — the guys didn't know I could sing. And when I started [my solo career], I got more kidding from the musicians because the same guys that I was playing with on all those sessions, they all played on my stuff, you know, whether it was 'Rhinestone Cowboy' or 'Wichita Lineman,' 'Galveston' ... It was the same guys, and it was so much fun in the studio with them because, 'Hey, old big shot's back with us, boys,' you know. Especially during the TV show. I went in and did sessions with people while I was doing the TV show. I missed ... the camaraderie with the musicians."

On his 1967 breakout hit, "Gentle on My Mind"

"John Hartford, he did the song, and I said, 'Boy, it takes too long to get to the next verse, that's slow.' And I just did it — I got a comfortable time on the song, you know, whether do it slow, medium, and I just got it to where I could talk the song like, [singing] 'It's knowing that your door's always open and your path is free to walk.' I just put it in a tempo that was comfortable, like I would be talking it, without singing the melody.

"['Gentle on My Mind'] changed everything. We did The Summer Brothers Smothers Show; that just exploded everything. EMI ... had every press in town, every guy that could press records doing Glen Campbell records.

"And then you come out and people see you on TV. TV is just an incredible media. I had all that I had recorded and they'd [be in the] middle of the charts ... some of them didn't even get in the charts. But it didn't matter what it was after the TV show. Everything got in the charts and almost all of them went to No. 1. It was just amazing."

On the substance addiction Campbell wrestled with at the peak of his career

"That's a long story. It wasn't nobody's fault but mine and my ex-wife. She was, God rest her soul, she didn't live very long. She was really into all that stuff. And it really broke me. As they say back home, it broke me from sucking eggs.

"I just, I stopped doing all of it when I looked around. When I actually looked around to see what my life was doing then and what I was doing with it ... it was like I was trying to destroy myself, or I really didn't care, you know, because I had no reason for it, actually, except some — a lot of people done me dirty. And, of course, I probably did dirt to a lot of people. But I decided to just let God handle it. And I'll do as much as I can."

Danny Miller and Therese Madden produced the audio of this interview. Web intern Karen Gwee adapted it for digital.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to listen back to an interview with Glen Campbell. He died yesterday of complications caused by Alzheimer's disease. He was 81. Campbell had his biggest hits in the '60s and '70s, including "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," "Southern Nights" and "Gentle On My Mind," which was also the theme of his TV show "The Glen Campbell Goodtimes Hour." One of the songs he's most associated with is a "Rhinestone Cowboy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHINESTONE COWBOY")

GLEN CAMPBELL: (Singing) I've been walking these streets so long, singing the same old song. I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway where hustle's the name of the game and nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain. There's been a load of compromising on the road to my horizon. But I'm going to be where the lights are shining on me like a rhinestone cowboy, riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo, like a rhinestone cowboy getting cards and letters from people I don't even know and offers coming over the phone.

GROSS: Before Campbell's solo career, he played guitar with the legendary group of LA studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. Here's a sampling of some of those recordings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Strangers in the night exchanging glances, wondering in the night. What were the chances we'd be sharing love before the night was through?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE MY BABY")

THE RONETTES: (Singing) The night we met, I knew I needed you so. And if I had the chance, I'd never let you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SURF CITY")

JAN AND DEAN: (Singing) Two girls for every boy. I bought a '30 Ford wagon, and we call it a woodie. You know, it's not very cherry. It's an oldie but a goodie. Well, it ain't got a backseat or a rear window.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A BELIEVER")

THE MONKEES: (Singing) I thought love was only true in fairytales, meant for someone else but not for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIVA LAS VEGAS")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Viva Las Vegas. Viva Las Vegas. Viva Las Vegas. Viva, Viva Las Vegas.

GROSS: Glen Campbell also played guitar on many Beach Boys recordings and toured with them in 1964. Though his life at times seemed charmed, he battled drug and alcohol addiction and married four times. In 2011, he revealed he had Alzheimer's disease, but he continued to tour for another 15 months. Campbell spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies in 2008, three years before his Alzheimer's diagnosis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: You grew up in a small town in Arkansas - a big family. Twelve kids - is that right?

CAMPBELL: Twelve kids - eight boys, four girls.

DAVIES: What kind of childhood did you have?

CAMPBELL: Working - you worked. As soon as you got old enough to milk the cows, you milk the cows. It was - (laughter) slop the hogs. We didn't have electricity when I was a kid. We had to watch TV by candlelight. No, (laughter) that's a silly joke. Really, I don't remember not playing a guitar. And Daddy - he made me a capo out of corncobs, you know, where you can, you know, clamp it down on the A position. And you can play C position with it, you know?

DAVIES: Right, that's where it's a - like, a capo - they actually make them now on guitars where it sits on the frets so you can shorten the strings, right?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, right.

DAVIES: And your first one was out of a corncob?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, it was out of a corncob with a nail through it. (Laughter) I'll never forget those days. That was - I must've been, oh, 7, 8 years old then.

DAVIES: And were you singing, too, at an early age?

CAMPBELL: We sang in church. It was amazing - the Church of Christ that we went to there. We had to go, you know. All of us were breastfed. And if you wanted anything to eat Sunday, you had to go to church with Mama (laughter). And that's really - that's the truth. And it was - and I loved the singing. I remember hearing the singing. But a lot of it was out of tune because the Church of Christ didn't have musical instruments.

DAVIES: I happen to know that, yeah. I went to the Church of Christ as a...

CAMPBELL: They sing acapella.

DAVIES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, that's a - but when I do something, I take my guitar and play for them. I go down to the Baptist church where Grandpa Campbell was. And I could play a guitar and sing down there.

DAVIES: Well, you must have had some talent because, you know, as you said, you ended up in Albuquerque. And I know that you joined the band The Champs, which had that famous song "Tequila."

CAMPBELL: Right.

DAVIES: So you made your way to Los Angeles.

CAMPBELL: Yeah.

DAVIES: And you became one of really a legendary group of studio musicians that did tracks for - what groups? I mean it's a long, long list, right?

CAMPBELL: Oh, well...

DAVIES: The Beach Boys.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, Beach - The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Nat King Cole, Sinatra and my buddy Dean Martin - just everybody really - The Mamas and Papas, The Blossoms. Everybody that - we played almost on every record that came out of Los Angeles. And that was the group called The Wrecking Crew. It was the best - what an incredible band. They all just - boy, it was the best musicians I had ever played with. And you got to be on your toes for session playing cause that's a - you're laying out a pretty good chunk of money there. And they don't want no overtime.

DAVIES: Well, now, you were never trained to read music, right? I mean was that an issue?

CAMPBELL: No, it wasn't. I learned to read chord charts, you know, and their time signatures. But I never learned to read notes. That was always so hard for me. I didn't - of course I can pick up a sheet music and play it, you know, but not necessarily the melody.

DAVIES: So you played rhythm on a lot of these tracks, right?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, that's what I played, rhythm, because of my capo. You know, I could - if it was in E-flat, I could play C position in E-flat. It drove the guys who - the readers - it drove them nuts (laughter). How can you read like that? And I said, well, I'm just going to pretend I'm in C when I'm actually in E-flat with my Capo on it playing open-chord rhythm.

DAVIES: You know, I'm just picturing. This is back in the early and mid-60s, and you're putting in long days in the studio, right?

CAMPBELL: Yeah.

DAVIES: One producer after another, and what's happening is you guys are putting in music which then becomes hit records for other groups. Did you feel ripped off?

CAMPBELL: No, that was the most money I'd ever made. (Laughter) You know, it beat the hell out of picking cotton. I can tell you that. It was just - I had more - I think that was probably the part of my life that I'll remember as sitting down and playing with the best musicians in the world, literally.

DAVIES: Well, you had these great years as a session musician with this group called The Wrecking Crew. And then you went solo. Did you always see yourself as going out and having a solo career?

CAMPBELL: Yes, it did. I just waited it - I waited for it to come to me. I was making records, you know, here and there, like "Turn Around, Look At Me" in 1962. But I loved the studio work.

DAVIES: And what you said about doing solo - you wanted to wait until it came to you, what do you mean?

CAMPBELL: Before I didn't have - I wouldn't go out - I didn't really - I was at a position where I didn't have to go out and knock on doors. Everybody - and there was a lot of people didn't even - the guys didn't even know I could sing.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

CAMPBELL: And when I started, I got more kidding from the musicians because the same guys that I was playing with on all those sessions, they all played on my stuff - you know, whether it was "Rhinestone Cowboy" or "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston." It was the same guys. And it was so much fun in the studio with them because, hey, old big shot's back with us, boys, you know (laughter) especially after - during the TV show. I went and did sessions with people after - when I was doing the TV show.

DAVIES: And they weren't jealous.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, I just missed the camaraderie with the musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Oh, you mean when you were a big star, had the TV show, you would go back in and just do some session work on other people's stuff?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, just to see the guys, you know, see what was happening in the end of it. It was fun.

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Glen Campbell in 2008. Campbell died yesterday at the age of 81. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Glen Campbell, who died yesterday at the age of 81. Let's get back to the 2008 interview that FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, you know, your breakout hit was "Gentle On My Mind" with Capitol Records. I guess this was 1967, right? You want to tell us a little bit about recording that song?

CAMPBELL: Oh, I heard the song. John Hartford - he did the song. And I said, boy, that's - it takes too long to get to the next verse. That's slow. And I just did it to - I got a comfortable time on the song, you know, whether to do it slow, medium. And I just got it to where I could talk the song. Like, (singing) it's knowing that your door's always open and your path is free to walk. I just put it in a tempo that was comfortable like I would be talking it without singing the melody.

DAVIES: Well, let's hear it. This is "Gentle On My Mind" by Glen Campbell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GENTLE ON MY MIND")

CAMPBELL: (Singing) It's knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk. That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch. And it's knowing I'm not shackled by forgotten words and bonds and the ink stains that are dried upon some line. That keeps you in back roads by the rivers of my memory. It keeps you ever gentle on my mind.

DAVIES: And that was my guest Glen Campbell with his breakout hit "Gentle On My Mind" from 1867. That was a huge hit. How did it change your life and career?

CAMPBELL: It changed everything. We did "The Summer Brothers Smothers Show." That just exploded everything. EMI had the pressing where they press the records. They had every person - (laughter) every guy that could press record doing Glen Campbell records because I'd had such a backlog of it. And then you come out, and people see you on TV. TV is just an incredible media. And when I did...

DAVIES: You mean after - yeah, when people saw you on TV, suddenly the demand for the records just shot through the roof, you mean, yeah, yeah.

CAMPBELL: Yeah. And that was timing again. And I had all that - and the - that I had recorded and it - they did middle of the charts, something, you know? Some of them didn't even get in the charts. But everything - it didn't matter what it was after the TV show. Everything got in the charts. And almost all of them went to number one. It was just amazing.

DAVIES: Well, you know, one of - one of them was "Wichita Lineman," which is just - was a great, old favorite. And I just think this was such a wonderfully evocative tune of, you know...

CAMPBELL: Oh, it wasn't that good.

DAVIES: ...Of just - we've all had the experience of working a shift, you know, at a - in a hospital or on a warehouse or wherever and thinking about - pining for a love. You want to talk a bit about this, recording this song?

CAMPBELL: Well, I just do a track first. And then I sing it three or four different times. And actually I will put some song that you did on track one - put words there and just change it around until I got it like I wanted it. But when the TV show hit, they were just - everything - it didn't matter what I put out. It sold.

DAVIES: Well, let's listen to a little bit of "Wichita Lineman." This is our guest, Glen Campbell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WICHITA LINEMAN")

CAMPBELL: (Singing) I am a lineman for the county. And I drive the main roads, searching in the sun for another overload. I hear you singing in the wire. I can hear you through the whine. And the Wichita lineman is still on the line. I know I need a small vacation.

DAVIES: That was "Wichita Lineman" by our guest, Glen Campbell.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

DAVIES: Glen, you have your guitar there.

CAMPBELL: Yeah.

DAVIES: You want to play us a little something?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, what do you want to hear?

DAVIES: You tell me.

CAMPBELL: (Laughter) Oh, I don't know.

DAVIES: You want to play something from the new album?

CAMPBELL: (Singing) I've been out walking. (Singing) I don't do too much talking these day. These days

That's - there's some good songs in this album.

DAVIES: Right. Now, that was an old Jackson Browne tune, right?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, Jackson Browne.

DAVIES: Do you - yeah. You became a TV star when you got associated with the Smothers Brothers that had that really edgy comedy show that eventually was taken off by CBS.

CAMPBELL: (Laughter) Right.

DAVIES: And that led you to getting your own musical variety show...

CAMPBELL: Yes, it did.

DAVIES: ..."The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour." And one of the things that was interesting about that was that the - you know, the Smothers Brothers were always pushing this - pushing the edge with anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam War comedy - think of you as maybe not so political. Were you comfortable with, you know, the kind of edge and tone of what they were doing?

CAMPBELL: Not really. I thought they was - when I listened to their show, it was - I thought it was a little edgy, you know? I don't think I'm in the music business to, you know, to try to save the world or to focus my opinion. And Tommy - then that's why they got threw off CBS. He was a - he was - he stepped over the line a little bit I believe. And that shouldn't even be a factor in it as far as music goes, you know? There's a war going on. Well, it's - you know, your life's got to go on.

DAVIES: Well, I wish you the best with the new album. Thanks so much for speaking with us, Glen.

CAMPBELL: Hey, thank you.

DAVIES: All right, take care.

CAMPBELL: (Singing) She'll be coming around a mountain when she comes. She'll be coming around a mountain when she comes. She'll be coming around a mountain. She'll be coming around the mountain. She'll be coming around the mountain when she comes.

GROSS: Wow - Glen Campbell speaking with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies in 2008. Campbell died yesterday of complications from Alzheimer's.

After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new book "What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women And The Food That Tells Their Stories." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.